Throughout most of my life, I have had the nagging suspicion that something was wrong with me. When I was younger, these feelings were focused on my body, because I was overweight and got made fun of as a kid. When I hit puberty, I internalized the message that my sexual desires were bad and misguided. When I was cut from the team, rejected by a friend, or struggled to navigate dating and sex, the message was right there with me: Something is wrong with you.
My religious upbringing supported this idea. My church taught that God created the first human beings, Adam and Eve, without sin. In other words, they started out in perfect relationship with each other and God. But pretty soon things started to go off the rails. Adam and Eve disobeyed the one rule God gave them, and ate from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Because of this event, every human being who was born after them had something called a sin nature, which meant they had a natural tendency toward sin.
The other day, I was talking with my friend Danielle, who wrote a book called Original Blessing: Putting Sin in Its Rightful Place. In the book, Danielle takes a long, hard look at the doctrine of original sin, and offers an alternate, more positive perspective—that human nature is a mix of positive and negative, and God’s initial (and continued) stance toward us is one of blessing and connection rather than condemnation and separation.
I won’t get into all the theological arguments for why Danielle disagrees with the doctrine of original sin (you can read the book for that), but I will say that I have struggled with the idea of original sin from a psychological perspective. It never made much sense to me to think that human nature is predisposed toward sin and that following God is “unnatural.” I also struggle with any perspective that devalues human nature. When I’m talking with someone who is struggling, I want to encourage them toward the good. So often people have lost sight of what is good about themselves, and become depressed and hopeless. We do a good enough job of beating ourselves (and each other) up on our own, I don’t need my theology to exacerbate this struggle.
I found the perspective Danielle presented in the book Original Blessing to be balanced. It doesn’t offer a “pie in the sky” view of human nature, but rather one that presents humanity as capable of both good and bad. That is our reality—there is part of us that yearns for the good, yet also struggles. Life is a series of choices, and we experience the consequences of those choices—both the positive and the negative. Through it all, however, the stance of God toward us is one of blessing and connection. We may make choices that steer us away from God, but God does not turn his back on us. Like a loving Father, God is consistently “for us,” and welcomes us back with forgiveness and love.
Discussion: What do you think of the doctrine of original sin? Do you think it is helpful or unhelpful? How has the idea of original sin impacted your own life?